The first timeI cheated on my husband, my mother had been dead for exactly one week. I was in a cafe in Minneapolis watching a man. He watched me back. He was slightly pudgy, with jet-black hair and skin so white it looked as if he’d powdered it. He stood and walked to my table and sat down without asking. He wanted to know if I had a cat. I folded my hands on the table, steadying myself; I was shaking, nervous at what I would do. I was raw, fragile, vicious with grief. I would do anything.
“Yes,” I said.
“I thought so,” he said slowly. He didn’t take his eyes off me. I rolled the rings around on my fingers. I was wearing two wedding bands, my own and my mother’s. I’d taken hers off her hand after she died. It was nothing fancy: sterling silver, thick and braided.
“You look like the kind of girl who has a cat.”
“How’s that?” I asked.
He didn’t answer. He just kept looking at me steadily, as if he knew everything about me, as if he owned me. I felt distinctly that he might be a murderer.
“Are you mature?” he asked intently.
I didn’t know what he meant. I still don’t. I told him that I was.
“Well then prove it and walk down the street with me.”
We left the cafe, his hand on my arm. I had monstrous bruises on my knees from how I’d fallen on them after I walked into my mother’s hospital room and first saw her dead. He liked these. He said he’d been admiring them from across the room. They were what had drawn him to me. Also, he liked my boots. He thought I looked intriguing. He thought I looked mature. I was twenty-two. He was older, possibly thirty. I didn’t ask his name; he didn’t ask mine. I walked with him to a parking lot behind a building. He stopped and pressed me against a brick wall and kissed me, but then he wasn’t kissing me. He was biting me. He bit my lips so hard I screamed.
“You lying cunt,” he whispered into my ear. “You’re not mature.” He flung me away from him and left.
I stood, unmoving, stunned. The inside of my mouth began to bleed softly. Tears filled my eyes. I want my mother, I thought. My mother is dead. I thought this every hour of every day for a very long time: I want my mother. My mother is dead.
It was only a kiss, and barely that, but it was, anyway, a crossing. When I was a child I witnessed a leaf unfurl in a single motion. One second it was a fist, the next an open hand. I never forgot it, seeing so much happen so fast. And this was like that — the end of one thing, the beginning of another: my life as a slut.
When my motherwas diagnosed with cancer, my husband Mark and I took an unspoken sexual hiatus. When she died seven weeks later, I couldn’t bear for Mark to touch me. His hands on my body made me weep. He went down on me in the gentlest of ways. He didn’t expect anything in return. He didn’t make me feel that I had to come. I would soak in a hot bath, and he would lean into it to touch me. He wanted to make me feel good, better. He loved me, and he had loved my mother. Mark and I were an insanely young, insanely happy, insanely in-love married couple. He wanted to help. No, no, no, I said, but then sometimes I relented. I closed my eyes and tried to relax. I breathed deep and attempted to fake it. I rolled over on my stomach so I wouldn’t have to look at him. He fucked me and I sobbed uncontrollably.
“Keep going,” I said to him. “Just finish.” But he wouldn’t. He couldn’t. He loved me. Which was mysteriously, unfortunately, precisely the problem.
I wanted my mother.
We aren’t supposed to want our mothers that way, with the pining intensity of sexual love, but I did, and if I couldn’t have her, I couldn’t have anything. Most of all I couldn’t have pleasure, not even for a moment. I was bereft, in agony, destroyed over her death. To experience sexual joy, it seemed, would have been to negate that reality. And more, it would have been to betray my mother, to be disloyal to the person she had been to me: my hero, a single mother after she bravely left an unhealthy relationship with my father when I was five. She remarried when I was eleven. My stepfather had loved her and been a good husband to her for ten years, but shortly after she died, he’d fallen in love with someone else. His new girlfriend and her two daughters moved into my mother’s house, took her photos off the walls, erased her. I needed my stepfather to be the kind of man who would suffer for my mother, unable to go on, who would carry a torch. And if he wouldn’t do it, I would.
We are notallowed this. We are allowed to be deeply into basketball, or Buddhism, or Star Trek, or jazz, but we are not allowed to be deeply sad. Grief is a thing that we are encouraged to “let go of,” to “move on from,” and we are told specifically how this should be done. Countless well-intentioned friends, distant family members, hospital workers, and strangers I met at parties recited the famous five stages of grief to me: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I was alarmed by how many people knew them, how deeply this single definition of the grieving process had permeated our cultural consciousness. Not only was I supposed to feel these five things, I was meant to feel them in that order and for a prescribed amount of time.
I did not deny. I did not get angry. I didn’t bargain, become depressed, or accept. I fucked. I sucked. Not my husband, but people I hardly knew, and in that I found a glimmer of relief. The people I messed around with did not have names; they had titles: the Prematurely Graying Wilderness Guide, the Technically Still a Virgin Mexican Teenager, the Formerly Gay Organic Farmer, the Quietly Perverse Poet, the Failing but Still Trying Massage Therapist, the Terribly Large Texas Bull Rider, the Recently Unemployed Graduate of Juilliard, the Actually Pretty Famous Drummer Guy. Most of these people were men; some were women. With them, I was not in mourning; I wasn’t even me. I was happy and sexy and impetuous and fun. I was wild and enigmatic and terrifically good in bed. I didn’t care about them or have orgasms. We didn’t have heart-to-heart talks. I asked them questions about their lives, and they told me everything and asked few questions in return; they knew nothing about me. Because of this, most of them believed they were falling instantly, madly in love with me.
I did what I did with these people, and then I returned home to Mark, weak-kneed and wet, bleary-eyed and elated. I’m alive, I thought in that giddy, postsex daze. My mother’s death has taught me to live each day as if it were my last, I said to myself, latching onto the nearest cliché, and the one least true. I didn’t stop to think: What if it had been my last day? Did I wish to be sucking the cock of an Actually Pretty Famous Drummer Guy? I didn’t think to ask that because I didn’t want to think. When I did think, I thought, I cannot continue to live without my mother.
I lied — sometimes to the people I messed around with (some of them, if they’d known I was married, would not have wanted to mess around with me), but mostly to Mark. I was not proud of myself. I was in love with him and wanted to be faithful to him and wanted to want to have sex with him, but something in me wouldn’t let me do it. We got into the habit of fucking in the middle of the night, both of us waking from a sound sleep to the reality of our bodies wet and hard and in the act. The sex lasted about thirty seconds, and we would almost always both come. It was intensely hot and strange and surreal and darkly funny and ultimately depressing. We never knew who started it. Neither of us recalled waking, reaching for each other. It was a shard of passion, and we held on to it. For a while it got us through.
We like tosay how things are, perhaps because we hope that’s how they might actually be. We attempt to name, identify, and define the most mysterious of matters: sex, love, marriage, monogamy, infidelity, death, loss, grief. We want these things to have an order, an internal logic, and we also want them to be connected to one another. We want it to be true that if we cheat on our spouse, it means we no longer want to be married to him or her. We want it to be true that if someone we love dies, we simply have to pass through a series of phases, like an emotional obstacle course from which we will emerge happy and content, unharmed and unchanged.
After my mother died, everyone I knew wanted to tell me either about the worst breakup they’d had or all the people they’d known who’d died. I listened to a long, traumatic story about a girlfriend who suddenly moved to Ohio, and to stories of grandfathers and old friends and people who lived down the block who were no longer among us. Rarely was this helpful.
Occasionally I came across people who’d had the experience of losing someone whose death made them think, I cannot continue to live. I recognized these people: their postures, where they rested their eyes as they spoke, the expressions they let onto their faces and the ones they kept off. These people consoled me beyond measure. I felt profoundly connected to them, as if we were a tribe.
It’s surprising how relatively few of them there were. People don’t die anymore, not the way they used to. Children survive childhood; women, the labors of birth; men, their work. We survive influenza and infection, cancer and heart attacks. We keep living on and on: 80, 90, 103. We live younger, too; frightfully premature babies are cloistered and coddled and shepherded through. My mother lived to the age of forty-five and never lost anyone who was truly beloved to her. Of course, she knew many people who died, but none who made her wake to the thought: I cannot continue to live.
And there is a difference. Dying is not your girlfriend moving to Ohio. Grief is not the day after your neighbor’s funeral, when you felt extremely blue. It is impolite to make this distinction. We act as if all losses are equal. It is un-American to behave otherwise: we live in a democracy of sorrow. Every emotion felt is validated and judged to be as true as any other.
But what does this do to us: this refusal to quantify love, loss, grief? Jewish tradition states that one is considered a mourner when one of eight people dies: father, mother, sister, brother, husband, wife, son, or daughter. This definition doesn’t fulfill the needs of today’s diverse and far-flung affections; indeed, it probably never did. It leaves out the step-relations, the long-term lovers, the chosen family of a tight circle of friends; and it includes the blood relations we perhaps never honestly loved. But its intentions are true. And, undeniably, for most of us that list of eight does come awfully close. We love and care for oodles of people, but only a few of them, if they died, would make us believe we could not continue to live. Imagine if there were a boat upon which you could put only four people, and everyone else known and beloved to you would then cease to exist. Who would you put on that boat? It would be painful, but how quickly you would decide: You and you and you and you, get in. The rest of you, goodbye.
For years, I was haunted by the idea of this imaginary boat of life; by the desire to exchange my mother’s fate for one of the many living people I knew. I would be sitting across the table from a dear friend. I loved her, him, each one of these people. Some I said I loved like family. But I would look at them and think, Why couldn’t it have been you who died instead? You, goodbye.
We are not allowed this. We are allowed to be deeply into basketball, or Buddhism, or Star Trek, or jazz, but we are not allowed to be deeply sad. Grief is a thing that we are encouraged to “let go of,” to “move on from,” and we are told specifically how this should be done.
I didn’t oftensleep with Mark, but I slept beside him, or tried to. I dreamed incessantly about my mother. There was a theme. Two or three times a week she made me kill her. She commanded me to do it, and I sobbed and got down on my knees, begging her not to make me, but she would not relent. In each dream, like a good daughter, I ultimately complied. I tied her to a tree in our front yard, poured gasoline over her head, and lit her on fire. I made her run down the dirt road that passed by the house where I’d grown up, and I ran her over with my truck; I dragged her body, caught on a jagged piece of metal underneath, until it came loose, and then I put my truck in reverse and ran her over again. I took a miniature baseball bat and beat her to death with it. I forced her into a hole I’d dug and kicked dirt and stones on top of her and buried her alive. These dreams were not surreal. They took place in the plain light of day. They were the documentary films of my subconscious and felt as real to me as life. My truck was really my truck; our front yard was our actual front yard; the miniature baseball bat sat in our closet among the umbrellas. I didn’t wake from these dreams crying; I woke shrieking. Mark grabbed me and held me. He wetted a washcloth with cool water and put it over my face. These dreams went on for months, years, and I couldn’t shake them. I also couldn’t shake my infidelities. I couldn’t shake my grief.
What was there to do with me? What did those around me do? They did what I would have done — what we all do when faced with the prospect of someone else’s sorrow: they tried to talk me out of it, neutralize it, tamp it down, make it relative and therefore not so bad. We narrate our own lesser stories of loss in an attempt to demonstrate that the sufferer is not really so alone. We make grossly inexact comparisons and hope that they will do. In short, we insist on ignoring the precise nature of deep loss because there is nothing we can do to change it, and by doing so we strip it of its meaning, its weight, its own fiercely original power.
Nobody knew about my sexual escapades. I kept waiting for them to cure me, or for something to cure me of them. Two years had passed since my mother’s death, and I still couldn’t live without her, but I also couldn’t live with myself.
The first personI knew who died was a casual friend of my mother’s named Barb. Barb was in her early thirties, and I was ten. Her hair was brown and shoulder length, her skin clear and smooth as a bar of soap. She had the kind of tall body that made you acutely aware of the presence of its bones: a long, knobby nose; wide, thin hips; a jaw too pointed to be considered beautiful. Barb got into her car and started the engine. Her car was parked in a garage and all the doors were closed and she had stuffed a Minnesota Vikings cap into the exhaust pipe. My mother explained this to me in detail: the Vikings hat, the sitting in the car with the garage door closed on purpose. I was more curious than sad. But in the months that followed, I thought of Barb often. I came to care for her. I nurtured an inflated sense of my connection to her.
Recently, another acquaintance of mine died. He was beautiful and young and free-spirited and one hell of a painter. He went hiking one day on the Oregon coast and was never seen again. Over the course of my life, I have known other people who’ve died. Some of them have died the way we hoped they would — old, content, at their time; others, the way we hoped they wouldn’t — by murder or suicide, in accidents, or too young of illnesses. The deaths of those people made me sad, afraid, and angry; they made me question the fairness of the world, the existence of God, and the nature of my own existence. But they did not make me suffer. They did not make me think, I cannot continue to live. In fact, in their deaths I felt more deeply connected to them, not because I grieved them, but because I wanted to attach myself to what is interesting. It is interesting to be in a Chinese restaurant and see a poster of the smiling face of an acquaintance, who is one hell of a painter, plastered on the front door. It is interesting to be able to say, I know him, to feel a part of something important and awful and big. The more connections like this we have, the more interesting we are.
There was nothinginteresting to me about my mother’s death. I did not want to attach myself to it. It was her life that I clung to, her very, very interesting life. When she died, she was about to graduate from college, and so was I. We had started together. Her college was in Duluth, mine in Minneapolis. After a lifetime of struggle and sacrifice, my mother was coming into her own. She wanted to major in six subjects, but the school wouldn’t let her, so she settled on two.
My mother had become pregnant when she was nineteen and immediately married my father, a steelworker in western Pennsylvania when the steel plants were shutting down; a coal miner’s son born about the time that the coal was running out. After three children and nine years of misery, my mother left him. My father had recently moved us to a small town near Minneapolis in pursuit of a job prospect. When they divorced, he went back to Pennsylvania, but my mother stayed. She worked as a waitress and in a factory that made small plastic containers that would eventually hold toxic liquids. We lived in apartment complexes full of single mothers whose children sat on the edges of grocery-store parking lots. We received free government cheese and powdered milk, food stamps and welfare checks.
After a few years, my mother met my stepfather, and when he fell off a roof on the job and hurt his back, they took the twelve-thousand-dollar settlement and spent every penny on forty acres of land in northern Minnesota. There was no house; no one had ever had a house on this land. My stepfather built a one-room tar-paper shack, and we lived in it while he and my mother built us a house from scrap wood and trees they cut down with the help of my brother, my sister, and me. We moved into the new house on Halloween night. We didn’t have electricity or running water or a phone or an indoor toilet. Years passed, and my mother was happy — happier than she’d ever been — but still, she hungered for more.
Just before she died, she was thinking about becoming a costume designer, or a professor of history. She was profoundly interested in the American pioneers, the consciousness of animals, and the murders of women believed to be witches. She was looking into graduate school, though she feared that she was too old. She couldn’t believe, really, that she was even getting a degree. I’d had to convince her to go to college. She’d always read books but thought that she was basically stupid. To prepare, she shadowed me during my senior year of high school, doing all the homework that I was assigned. She photocopied my assignment sheets, wrote the papers I had to write, read the books. I graded her work, using my teacher’s marks as a guide. My mother was a shaky student at best.
She went to college and earned straight A’s.
She died ona Monday during spring break of our senior year. After her funeral, I immediately went back to school because she had begged me to do so. It was the beginning of a new quarter. In most of my classes, we were asked to introduce ourselves and say what we had done over the break. “My name is Cheryl,” I said. “I went to Mexico.”
I lied not to protect myself, but because it would have been rude not to. To express loss on that level is to cross a boundary, to violate personal space, to impose emotion in a nonemotional place.
We did not always treat grief this way. Nearly every culture has a history, and some still have a practice, of mourning rituals, many of which involve changes in the dress or appearance of those in grief. The wearing of black clothing or mourning jewelry, hair cutting, and body scarification or ritual tattooing all made the grief-stricken immediately visible to the people around them. Although it is true that these practices were sometimes ridiculously restrictive and not always in the best interest of the mourner, it is also true that they gave us something of value. They imposed evidence of loss on a community and forced that community to acknowledge it. If, as a culture, we don’t bear witness to grief, the burden of loss is placed entirely upon the bereaved, while the rest of us avert our eyes and wait for those in mourning to stop being sad, to let go, to move on, to cheer up. And if they don’t — if they have loved too deeply, if they do wake each morning thinking, I cannot continue to live — well, then we pathologize their pain; we call their suffering a disease.
We do not help them: we tell them that they need to get help.
Nobody knew about my sexual escapades. I kept waiting for them to cure me, or for something to cure me of them. Two years had passed since my mother’s death, and I still couldn’t live without her, but I also couldn’t live with myself. I decided to tell Mark the truth. The list was long. I practiced what I would say, trying to say it in the least painful way. It was impossible. It was time.
Mark sat in the living room playing his guitar. He was working as an organizer for a nonprofit environmental agency, but his real ambition was to be a musician. He had just formed his first band and was writing a new song, finding it as he went along. I told him that I had something to tell him and that it was not going to be easy. He stopped playing and looked at me, but he kept his hands on the guitar, holding it gently. This man whom I’d loved for years, had loved enough to marry, who had been with me through my mother’s death and the aftermath, who’d offered to go down on me in the gentlest of ways, who would do anything, anything for me, listened as I told him about the Technically Still a Virgin Mexican Teenager, the Prematurely Graying Wilderness Guide, the Recently Unemployed Graduate of Juilliard.
He fell straight forward out of his chair onto his knees and then face down onto the floor. His guitar went with him and it made clanging, strumming, hollow sounds as it went. I attempted to rub his back. He screamed for me to get my hands off him.
Later, spent, he calmly told me that he wanted to kill me. He promised he would if I’d given him AIDS.
Women are usedto the bad behavior of men. But I had broken the rules. Even among our group of alternative, left-wing, hippie, punk-rock, artsy politicos, I was viewed by many as the worst kind of woman: the whore, the slut, the adulteress, the liar, the cheat. And to top it all off, I had wronged the best of men. Mark had been faithful to me all along.
He moved out and rented a room in the attic of a house. Slowly we told our friends. The Insanely Young, Insanely Happy, Insanely In-Love Married Couple was coming apart. First, they were in disbelief. Next, they were mad, or several of them were — not at us, but at me. One of my dearest friends took the photograph of me she kept in a frame in her bedroom, ripped it in half, and mailed it to me. Another made out with Mark. When I was hurt and jealous about this I was told that perhaps it was exactly what I needed: a taste of my own medicine. I couldn’t rightfully disagree, but still my heart was broken. I lay alone in our bed feeling myself almost levitate from the pain.
We couldn’t decide whether to get divorced or not. We went to a marriage counselor and tried to work it out. Months later, we stopped the counseling and put the decision on hold. Mark began to date. He dated one of those women who, instead of a purse, carry a teeny-weeny backpack. He dated a biologist who also happened to be a model. He dated a woman I’d met once who’d made an enormous pot of very good chili of which I’d eaten two bowls.
His sex life temporarily cured me of mine. I didn’t fuck anyone, and I got crabs from a pair of used jeans I’d bought at a thrift store. I spent several days eradicating the translucent bugs from my person and my apartment. Then the Teeny-Weeny Backpack Woman started to play tambourine in Mark’s budding band. I couldn’t take it anymore. I went to visit a friend in Portland and decided to stay. I met a man: a Punk Rocker Soon to Be Hopelessly Held under the Thumb of Heroin. I found him remotely enchanting. I found heroin more enchanting. Quickly, without intending to, I slipped into a habit. Here, I thought. At last.
By now Mark pretty much hated me, but he showed up in Portland anyway and dragged me back home. He set a futon down for me in the corner of his room and let me stay until I could find a job and an apartment. At night we lay in our separate beds fighting about why we loved and hated each other so much. We made love once. He was cheating on someone for the first time. He was back with the Biologist Who Also Happened to Be a Model, and he was cheating on her with his own wife. Hmmm, we thought. What’s this?
But it was not to be. I was sorry. He was sorry. I wasn’t getting my period. I was really, really, really sorry. He was really, really, really mad. I was pregnant by the Punk Rocker Soon to Be Hopelessly Held under the Thumb of Heroin. We were at the end of the line. We loved each other, but love was not enough. We had become the Insanely Young, Insanely Sad, Insanely Messed-Up Married Couple. He wanted me gone. He pulled the blankets from my futon in his room and flung them down the stairs.
I sat for five hours in the office of an extremely overbooked abortion doctor, waiting for my abortion. The temperature in the room was somewhere around fifty-six degrees. It was packed with microscopically pregnant women who were starving because we had been ordered not to eat since the night before. The assistants of the Extremely Overbooked Abortion Doctor did not want to clean up any puke.
At last, I was brought into a room. I was told to undress and hold a paper sheet around myself. I was given a plastic breast and instructed to palpate it, searching for a lump of cancer hidden within its depths, while I waited for my abortion. I waited, naked, palpating, finding the cancer over and over again. The Extremely Overbooked Abortion Doctor needed to take an emergency long-distance phone call. An hour went by. Finally, she came in.
I lay back on the table and stared at a poster on the ceiling of a Victorian mansion that was actually composed of miniature photographs of the faces of a hundred famous and important women in history. I was told to lie still and peacefully for a while and then to stand up very quickly and pull my underwear on while an assistant of the Extremely Overbooked Abortion Doctor held me up. I was told not to have sex for a very long time. The procedure cost me four hundred dollars, half of which I was ridiculously hoping to receive from the Punk Rocker Soon to Be Hopelessly Held under the Thumb of Heroin. I went home to my new apartment. The light on my answering machine said I had three messages. I lay on my couch, ill and weak and bleeding, and listened to them.
There was a message from the Punk Rocker Soon to Be Hopelessly Held under the Thumb of Heroin, only he didn’t say anything. Instead he played a recording of a Radiohead song that went, “You’re so fucking special / I wish I was special / But I’m a creep / I’m a weirdo.”
There was a message that consisted of a thirty-second dial tone because the person had hung up.
There was a message from Mark wondering how I was.
My mother hadbeen dead for three years. I was twenty-five. I had intended, by this point in my life, to have a title of my own: The Incredibly Talented and Extraordinarily Brilliant and Successful Writer. I had planned to be the kind of woman whose miniature photographed face was placed artfully into a poster of a Victorian mansion that future generations of women would concentrate on while their cervixes were forcefully dilated by the tip of a plastic tube about the size of a drinking straw and the beginnings of babies were sucked out of them. I wasn’t anywhere close. I was a pile of shit.
Despite my mother’s hopes, I had not graduated from college. I pushed my way numbly through that last quarter, but I did not, in the end, receive my bachelor’s degree because I had neglected to do one assignment: write a five-page paper about a short story called “The Nose,” by Nikolai Gogol. It’s a rollicking tale about a man who wakes up one morning and realizes that his nose is gone. Indeed, his nose has not only left him but has also dressed in the man’s clothes, taken his carriage, and gone gadding about town. The man does what anyone would do if he woke up and found that his nose was gone: he goes out to find it. I thought the story was preposterous and incomprehensible. Your nose does not just up and leave you. I was told not to focus on the unreality of it. I was told that the story was actually about vanity, pretentiousness, and opportunism in nineteenth-century Russia. Alternately, I could interpret it as a commentary upon either male sexual impotency or divine Immaculate Conception. I tried dutifully to pick one of these concepts and write about it, but I couldn’t do it, and I could not discuss with my professor why this was so. In my myopic, grief-addled state, the story seemed to me to be about something else entirely: a man who woke up one morning and no longer had a nose and then went looking for it. There was no subtext to me. It was simply a story about what it was about, which is to say, the absurd and arbitrary nature of disappearance, our hungry ache to resurrect what we’ve lost, and the bald truth that the impossible can become possible faster than anyone dreams.
All the time that I’d been thinking, I cannot continue to live, I’d also had the opposite thought, which was by far the more unbearable: that I would continue to live, and that every day for the rest of my life I would have to live without my mother. Sometimes I forgot this, like a trick of the brain, a primitive survival mechanism. Somewhere, floating on the surface of my subconscious, I believed — I still believe — that if I endured without her for one year, or five years, or ten years, or twenty, she would be given back to me; that her absence was a ruse, a darkly comic literary device, a terrible and surreal dream.
What does it mean to heal? To move on? To let go? Whatever it means, it is usually said and not done, and the people who talk about it the most have almost never had to do it. I cannot say anything about healing, but I can say that something happened as I lay on the couch bleeding and listening to my answering machine play the Radiohead song and then the dial tone and then Mark’s voice wondering how I was: I thought about writing the five-page paper about the story of the man who lost his nose. I thought about calling Mark and asking him to marry me again. I thought about becoming the Incredibly Talented and Extraordinarily Brilliant and Successful Writer. I thought about taking a very long walk. I decided to do all of these things immediately, but I did not move from the couch. I didn’t set out the next day either to write the paper about the guy who lost his nose. I didn’t call Mark and ask him to marry me again. I didn’t start to work on becoming the Incredibly Talented and Extraordinarily Brilliant and Successful Writer. Instead I ordered pizza and listened to that one Lucinda Williams CD that I could not ever get enough of, and, after a few days, I went back to my job waiting tables. I let my uterus heal and then slept at least once with each of the five guys who worked in the kitchen. I did, however, hold on to one intention, and I set about fulfilling it: I was going to take a long walk. One thousand six hundred and thirty-eight miles, to be exact. Alone.
Mark and I had filed the papers for our divorce. My stepfather was going to marry the woman he’d started dating immediately after my mother died. I wanted to get out of Minnesota. I needed a new life and, unoriginally, I was going west to find it. I decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail — a wilderness trail that runs along the backbone of the Sierra Nevada and the Cascade Mountains, from Mexico to Canada. Rather, I decided to hike a large portion of it — from the Mojave Desert in California to the Columbia River at the Oregon-Washington border. It would take me four months. I’d grown up in the country, done a good amount of camping, and taken a few weekend backpacking trips, but I had a lot to learn: how, for example, to read a topographical map, ford a river, handle an ice ax, navigate using a compass, and avoid being struck by lightning. Everyone who knew me thought that I was nuts. I proceeded anyway, researching, reading maps, dehydrating food and packing it into plastic bags and then into boxes that would be mailed at roughly two-week intervals to the ranger stations and post offices I’d occasionally pass near.
I packed my possessions and stored them in my stepfather’s barn. I took off my wedding ring and put it into a small velvet box and moved my mother’s wedding ring from my right hand to my left. I was going to drive to Portland first and then leave my truck with a friend and fly to LA and take a bus to the start of the trail. I drove through the flatlands and Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota, positive that I’d made a vast mistake.
Deep in the night, I pulled into a small camping area in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming and slept in the back of my truck. In the morning I climbed out to the sight of field of blue flowers that went right up to the Tongue River. I had the place to myself. It was spring and still cold, but I felt compelled anyway to go into the river. I decided I would perform something like a baptism to initiate this new part of my life. I took my clothes off and plunged in. The water was like ice, so cold it hurt. I dove under one time, two times, three times, then dashed out and dried off and dressed. As I walked back to my truck I noticed my hand: my mother’s wedding ring was gone.
At first I couldn’t believe it. I had believed that if I lost one thing, I would then be protected from losing another; that my mother’s death would inoculate me against further loss. It is an indefensible belief, but it was there, the same way I believed that if I endured long enough, my mother would be returned to me.
A ring is such a small thing, such a very small thing.
I went down on my hands and knees and searched for it. I patted every inch of ground where I had walked. I searched the back of my truck and my pockets, but I knew. I knew that the ring had come off in the river. Of course it had; what did I expect? I went to the edge of the water and thought about going back in, diving under again and again until I found it, but it was a useless idea, and I was defeated by it before I even began. I sat down on the edge of the water and cried. Tears, tears, so many kinds of tears, so many ways of crying. I had collected them, mastered them; I was a priestess, a virtuoso of crying.
I sat in the mud on the bank of the river for a long time and waited for the river to give the ring back to me. I waited and thought about everything. I thought about Mark and my boat of life. I thought what I would say to him then, now, forever: You, get in. I thought about the Formerly Gay Organic Farmer and the Quietly Perverse Poet and the Terribly Large Texas Bull Rider and the Five Line Cooks I Had on Separate Occasions over the Course of One Month. I thought about how I was never again going to sleep with anyone who had a title instead of a name. I was sick of it. Sick of fucking, of wanting to fuck the wrong people and not wanting to fuck the right ones. I thought about how if you lose a ring in a river, you are never going to get it back, no matter how badly you want it or how long you wait.
I leaned forward and put my hands into the water and held them flat and open beneath the surface. The soft current made rivulets over my bare fingers. I was no longer married to Mark. I was no longer married to my mother.
I was no longer married to my mother. I couldn’t believe that this thought had never occurred to me before: that it was her I’d been faithful to all along, and that I couldn’t be faithful any longer.
If this werefiction, what would happen next is that the woman would stand up and get into her truck and drive away. It wouldn’t matter that the woman had lost her mother’s wedding ring, even though it was gone to her forever, because the loss would mean something else entirely: that what was gone now was actually her sorrow and the shackles of grief that had held her down. And in this loss she would see, and the reader would know, that the woman had been in error all along. That, indeed, the love she’d had for her mother was too much love, really; too much love and also too much sorrow. She would realize this and get on with her life. There would be what happened in the story and also everything it stood for: the river, representing life’s constant changing; the tiny blue flowers, beauty; the spring air, rebirth. All of these symbols would collide and mean that the woman was actually lucky to have lost the ring, and not just to have lost it, but to have loved it, to have ached for it, and to have had it taken from her forever. The story would end, and you would know that she was the better for it. That she was wiser, stronger, more interesting, and, most of all, finally starting down her path to glory. I would show you the leaf when it unfurls in a single motion: the end of one thing, the beginning of another. And you would know the answers to all the questions without being told. Did she ever write that five-page paper about the guy who lost his nose? Did she ask Mark to marry her again? Did she stop sleeping with people who had titles instead of names? Did she manage to walk 1,638 miles? Did she get to work and become the Incredibly Talented and Extraordinarily Brilliant and Successful Writer? You’d believe the answers to all these questions to be yes. I would have given you what you wanted then: to be a witness to a healing.
But this isn’t fiction. Sometimes a story is not about anything except what it is about. Sometimes you wake up and find that you actually have lost your nose. Losing my mother’s wedding ring in the Tongue River was not OK. I did not feel better for it. It was not a passage or a release. What happened is that I lost my mother’s wedding ring and I understood that I was not going to get it back, that it would be yet another piece of my mother that I would not have for all the days of my life, and I understood that I could not bear this truth, but that I would have to.
Healing is a small and ordinary and very burnt thing. And it’s one thing and one thing only: it’s doing what you have to do. It’s what I did then and there. I stood up and got into my truck and drove away from a part of my mother. The part of her that had been my lover, my wife, my first love, my true love, the love of my life.
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Cheryl Strayed recently completed her first novel, Torch, which is set in rural northern Minnesota, where she grew up. Her fiction and memoir have been published in Double Take, Nerve, Hope Magazine, and several anthologies, including Best New American Voices 2002 (Harvest), and Best American Essays 2002 (Mariner Books). She lives in Sheffield, Massachusetts, with her husband, the filmmaker Brian Lindstrom, who fills her life with love.More From This Contributor ▸
In 1992, when Dan Quayle condemned the television character Murphy Brown for giving birth out of wedlock, he reopened an old debate that quickly became highly polarized. Some people claimed that growing up in a fatherless home was the major cause of child poverty, delinquency, and school failure, while others denied that single motherhood had any harmful effects. And some objected even to discussing the topic for fear of stigmatizing single mothers and their children.
Not talking about single motherhood is scarcely an option. More than half of the children born in 1994 will spend some or all of their childhood with only one parent, typically their mother. If current patterns hold, they will likely experience higher rates of poverty, school failure, and other problems as they grow up. The long-range consequences could have enormous implications.
But what exactly are the consequences -- how large and concentrated among what groups? Do they depend on whether a single mother is widowed, divorced, or never married? Does public support for single mothers inadvertently increase the number of women who get divorced or choose to have a baby on their own?
Many people hold strong opinions about these issues. For example, conservatives such as former Education Secretary William Bennett and Charles Murray, the author of Losing Ground, believe that single motherhood is so harmful and public support is so significant an inducement for unwed women to have babies that it is time to get tough with the mothers. Murray has even proposed denying unwed mothers child support payments from nonresident fathers. In Murray's eyes, the mothers are fully responsible for any children they bear in an age when contraceptives and abortion are freely available. Of the father Murray says: As far as I can tell, he has approximately the same causal responsibility as a slice of chocolate cake has in determining whether a woman gains weight.
Meanwhile, some liberal critics see single mother as a codeword for "black, welfare mother." They view the focus on out-of-wedlock births and family breakup as an effort to divert public attention and social policy from overcoming racism and lack of opportunity. And then there are the feminists who regard Quayle's attack on Murphy Brown as a symbolic attack on the moral right of women to pursue careers and raise children on their own. So great are the passions aroused by the debate over the morality of single motherhood that a clear-eyed view of the consequences of single motherhood has been difficult. But to make any progress, we had best know what those are.
Does Single Motherhood Harm Children?
Children who grow up with only one of their biological parents (nearly always the mother) are disadvantaged across a broad array of outcomes. As shown in figure 1, they are twice as likely to drop out of high school, 2.5 times as likely to become teen mothers, and 1.4 times as likely to be idle -- out of school and out of work -- as children who grow up with both parents. Children in one-parent families also have lower grade point averages, lower college aspirations, and poorer attendance records. As adults, they have higher rates of divorce. These patterns persist even after adjusting for differences in race, parents' education, number of siblings, and residential location.
The evidence, however, does not show that family disruption is the principal cause of high school failure, poverty, and delinquency. While 19 percent of all children drop out of high school, the dropout rate for children in two-parent families is 13 percent. Thus, the dropout rate would be only 33 percent lower if all families had two parents and the children currently living with a single parent had the same dropout rates as children living with two parents -- a highly improbable assumption.
The story is basically the same for the other measures of child well-being. If all children lived in two-parent families, teen motherhood and idleness would be less common, but the bulk of these problems would remain.
The consequences of family disruption are not necessarily the same in all kinds of families. Some might suppose family disruption to have a larger effect on black and Hispanic children since on average they come from less advantaged backgrounds and their underlying risk of dropping out, becoming a teen mother, and being out of work is greater than that of whites. Alternatively, others might expect the effect of family disruption to be smaller on minority children because single mothers in black and Hispanic communities are more common, more widely accepted, and therefore perhaps provided more support from neighbors and kin.
In our study, we found that family disruption has the most harmful effects among Hispanics and least among blacks. Family disruption increases the risk of school failure by 24 percentage points among Hispanics, 17 percentage points among whites, and 13 percentage points among blacks.
A striking result emerges from comparisons of the percentage increases in risk. Family disruption raises the risk of dropping out 150 percent for the average white child, 100 percent for the average Hispanic child, and 76 percent for the average black child. Consequently, the dropout rate for the average white child in a single-parent family is substantially higher than the dropout rate of the average black child in a two-parent family and only two percentage points lower than the dropout rate of the average black child in a one-parent family. Thus, for the average white child, family disruption appears to eliminate much of the advantage associated with being white.
Children from white middle-class families are not immune from the effects of family disruption. Consider the children of families where one parent has at least some college education. If the parents live apart, the probability that their children will drop out of high school rises by 11 percentage points. And for every child who actually drops out of school, there are likely to be three or four more whose performance is affected even though they manage to graduate.
College performance may also suffer. The college graduation rate for white children from advantaged backgrounds is about 9 percentage points lower among children of disrupted families than among children of two-parent families (53 percent versus 62 percent). At the other end of the continuum, children from disadvantaged backgrounds (neither parent graduated from high school) have a bleak future, regardless of whether they live with one or both parents.
Does Marriage Matter?
Some of the current debate presumes that being born to unmarried parents is more harmful than experiencing parents' divorce and that children of divorced parents do better if their mother remarries. Our evidence suggests otherwise.
Children born to unmarried parents are slightly more likely to drop out of school and become teen mothers than children born to married parents who divorce. But the difference is small compared to the difference between these two groups of children and children who grow up with both parents. What matters for children is not whether their parents are married when they are born, but whether their parents live together while the children are growing up.
Children who grow up with widowed mothers, in contrast, fare better than children in other types of single-parent families, especially on measures of educational achievement. Higher income (due in part to more generous social polices toward widows), lower parental conflict, and other differences might explain this apparent anomaly.
Remarriage is another instance where the conventional wisdom is wrong. Children of stepfamilies don't do better than children of mothers who never remarry. Despite significantly higher family income and the presence of two parents, the average child in a stepfamily has about the same chance of dropping out of high school as the average child in a one-parent family.
Some people believe that single fathers are better able to cope with family responsibilities because they have considerably more income, on average, than the mothers. However, our evidence shows that children in single-father homes do just as poorly as children living with a single mother.
What Accounts for Poor Outcomes?
All of the numbers reported in the tables shown have been adjusted for differences in family background characteristics such as race, parents' education, family size, and place of residence. Thus the parents' socioeconomic status cannot explain why children from one-parent families are doing worse.
Unfortunately, we cannot rule out the possibility that the gap stems from some unmeasured difference between one- and two-parent families, such as alcoholism, child abuse, or parental indifference. Only a true experiment could prove that family disruption is really causing children to drop out of school -- and no one is willing to assign kids randomly to families to answer these questions.
Nevertheless, it is clear that parental breakup reduces children's access to important economic, parental, and community resources. The loss of those resources affects cognitive development and future opportunities. Thus the evidence strongly suggests that family disruption plays a causal role in lowering children's well-being (see figure 2). When parents live apart, children have less income because the family loses economies of scale and many nonresident fathers fail to pay child support. The average drop in income for white children whose parents separate during the child's adolescence is about $22,000 (in 1992 dollars) -- a loss of 40 percent. For black children, the decline is smaller -- about $9,000, a loss of 32 percent. In contrast, when a parent dies, children do not generally experience a major change in their standard of living. Social Security and life insurance help to make up the difference.
Family disruption also reduces the time parents spend with children and the control they have over them. When parents live apart, children see their fathers a lot less. About 29 percent do not see them at all. Another 35 percent see them only on a weekly basis. Mothers often find their authority undermined by the separation and consequently have more difficulty controlling their children. One survey asked high school students whether their parents helped them with their school work and supervised their social activities. Students whose parents separated between the sophomore and senior years reported a loss of involvement and supervision compared to students whose parents stayed together.
Family disruption also undermines children's access to community resources or what sociologist James Coleman calls social capital. Divorce and remarriage often precipitate moves out of a community, disrupting children's relationships with peers, teachers, and other adults. During middle childhood and early adolescence, a child in a stable family experiences, on average, 1.4 moves. The average child in a single-parent family experiences 2.7 moves; in a stepfamily, the average child experiences 3.4 moves.
The graph on "Income and Divorce" shows how the loss of economic resources can account for differences between children in one- and two-parent families. The first bar shows the baseline difference between children whose parents divorced during adolescence and children whose parents remained married. The second and third bars show the difference, after adjusting for pre- and post-divorce income (income at age 12 and 17). Loss of economic resources accounts for about 50 percent of the disadvantages associated with single parenthood. Too little parental supervision and involvement and greater residential mobility account for most of the rest.
Why Has Single Motherhood Increased?
Changes in children's living arrangements result from long- standing trends in marriage, divorce, and fertility. Divorce rates in the United States have been going up since the turn of the century and have recently stabilized at very high levels. Out-of-wedlock birth rates have been going up gradually since at least the early 1940s. After 1960, the age of women at their first marriages began to rise, increasing the proportion of young women who might become unwed mothers. Together, these forces have fueled the growth of single parenthood during the postwar period.
These trends exist in all western, industrialized countries. Divorce rates more than doubled in most countries between 1960 and 1990; in some they increased fourfold. Single parenthood also increased in nearly all western countries between 1970 and the late 1980s. Yet the U.S. has the highest prevalence of single-parent families, and it has experienced the largest increase between 1970 and 1990.
In the view of Murray and other conservatives, welfare benefits in the United States have reduced the costs of single motherhood and discouraged young men and women from marrying. In some parts of the country, welfare may provide poor women with more economic security than marriage does. However, for three reasons, the argument that welfare caused the growth in single-parent families does not withstand scrutiny.
- The trend in welfare benefits between 1960 and 1990 does not match the trend in single motherhood. Welfare and single motherhood both increased dramatically during the 1960s and early 1970s. After 1974, however, welfare benefits declined, but single motherhood continued to rise. The real value of the welfare benefit package (cash assistance plus food stamps) for a family of four with no other income fell from $10,133 in 1972 to $8,374 in 1980 and to $7,657 in 1992, a loss of 26 percent between 1972 and 1992 (in 1992 dollars).
- Increases in welfare cannot explain why single motherhood grew among more advantaged women. Since 1960, divorce and single parenthood have grown among women with a college education, who are not likely to be motivated by the promise of a welfare check.
- Welfare payments cannot explain why single motherhood is more common in the United States than in other industrialized countries. Nearly all the Western European countries have much more generous payments for single mothers than the U.S., yet the prevalence of single motherhood is lower in these countries. One way to compare the "costs" of single motherhood in different countries is to compare the poverty rates of single mothers with those of married mothers. While single mothers have higher poverty rates than married mothers in all industrialized countires, they are worst off in the United States.
If welfare is not to blame, what is? Three factors seem to be primarily responsible.
The first is the growing economic independence of women. Women who can support themselves outside marriage can be picky about when and whom they marry. They can leave bad marriages and they can afford to bear and raise children on their own. Thus single mothers will be more common in a society where women are more economically independent, all else being equal.
American women have moved steadily toward economic independence throughout this century thanks to increased hourly wages, greater control over child-bearing, and technological advances that reduce time required for housework. Since the turn of the century, each new generation of young women has entered the labor force in greater proportions and stayed at work longer. By 1970, over half of all American women were employed or looking for work; by 1990, nearly three quarters were doing so. The rise in welfare benefits during the 1950s and 1960s may have made poor women less dependent on men by providing them with an alternative source of economic support. However, welfare was only a small part of a much larger change that was enabling all women, rich and poor alike, to live more easily without a husband.
A second factor in the growth of single motherhood is the decline in men's earning power relative to women's. After World War II and up through the early 1970s, both men and women benefitted from a strong economy. While women were becoming more self-sufficient during the 1950s and 1960s, men's wages and employment opportunities were increasing as well. Consequently, while more women could afford to live alone, the economic payoff from marriage continued to rise. After 1970, however, the gender gap in earnings (women's earnings divided by men's earnings) began to narrow. In 1970, female workers earned 59 percent as much as male workers; by 1980, they earned 65 percent as much and by 1990 74 percent. (These numbers, which come from a study by Suzanne Bianchi to be published by the Russell Sage Foundation, are based on full-time workers between the ages of 25 and 34.) In just two short decades, the economic payoff from marriage had declined by 15 percentage points. Such reductions are likely to increase single motherhood.
The narrowing of the wage gap occurred among adults from all social strata, but the source of the narrowing varied. Among those with a college education, men were doing well, but women were doing even better. Between 1980 and 1990, the earnings of college-educated women grew by 17 percent, while the earnings of college-educated men grew by only 5 percent. (Again, I am referring to full-time workers, aged 25 to 34). Thus, even though the benefits of marriage were declining, women still had much to gain from pooling resources with a man.
The story was much bleaker at the other end of the educational ladder. Between 1970 and 1990, women's earnings stagnated and men's earnings slumped. Between 1980 and 1990, women with a high school degree experienced a 2 percent decline in earnings, while men with similar education experienced a 13 percent decline. This absolute loss in earnings particularly discouraged marriage by some low-skilled men who were no longer able to fulfill their breadwinner role. During the Clutch Plague, fathers who could not find work sometimes deserted their families as a way of coping with their sense of failure. Again, welfare may have played a part in making single motherhood more attractive than marriage for women with the least skills and education, but only because low-skilled men were having such a hard time and received so little help from government.
The third factor in the growth of single motherhood was a shift in social norms and values during the 1960s that reduced the stigma associated with divorce and nonmarital childbearing. In the 1950s, if a young unmarried woman found herself pregnant, the father was expected to step forward and the couple was expected to marry. By the late 1980s, the revolution in sexual mores permitted young men and women to have intimate relationships and live together outside the bonds of legal marriage.
Attitudes toward individual freedom also changed during the 1960s. The new individualism encouraged people to put personal fulfillment above family responsibility, to expect more from their intimate relationships and marriages, and to leave "bad" marriages if their expectations were not fulfilled. In the early 1960s, over half of all women surveyed agreed that "when there are children in the family, parents should stay together even if they don't get along." By the 1980s, only 20 percent held this view. Once sex and childrearing were "liberated" from marriage and women could support themselves, two of the most important incentives for marriage were gone. When the economic gains from marriage declined in the 1970s, it's not surprising that declines in marriage rates soon followed.
Today, changes in social norms continue to influence the formation of families by making new generations of young adults less trustful of the institution of marriage. Many of the young people who are now having trouble finding and keeping a mate were born during the 1960s when divorce rates were rising. Many grew up in single-parent families or stepfamilies. Given their own family history, these young people may find it easier to leave a bad relationship and to raise child alone than to make and keep a long-term commitment.
Compared to the conservative argument that welfare causes single parenthood, these changes provide a more comprehensive and compelling explanation. They explain why single motherhood is more common in the United States than in other industrialized countries: American women are more economically independent than women in most other countires. For this reason alone, single-mother families should be more numerous in the U.S. In addition, low-skilled men in the U.S. are worse off relative to women than low-skilled men in other countries. American workers were the first to experience the economic dislocations brought about by deindustrialization and economic restructuring. Throughout the 1970s, unemployment rates were higher in the U.S. than in most of Europe, and wage rates fell more sharply here than elsewhere. During the 1980s, unemployment spread to other countries but with less dire consequences for men since unemployment benefits are more generous and coverage is more extensive.
What Should We Do?
Just as single motherhood has no single cause and no certain outcome, there is no simple solution or "quick fix" for the problems facing single mothers and their children. Strategies for helping these families, therefore, must include those aimed at preventing family breakup and sustaining family resources as well as those aimed at compensating children for the loss of parental time and income.
Preventing Family Breakup and Economic Insecurity. Parents contemplating divorce need to be informed about the risks to their children if their marriage breaks up. However, it is not clear we can prevent family breakups by making the divorce laws more restrictive, as William Galston, now deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, advocates. Indeed, more restrictive divorce laws might have the opposite effect. Increasing numbers of young adults are living together and delaying marriage. Making divorce more difficult will only make marriage less attractive, relative to cohabitation.
A better way to encourage marriage is to make sure that parents -- especially poor parents -- are not penalized when they do get married. Our current system of income transfers and taxation does just that.
Health care and child care are two areas in which poor two-parent families receive less government help than well-off two-parent families and impoverished single-parent families. Most middle- and upper-income families receive tax-subsidized health insurance through their employers, and all single-mother families receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) are eligible for Medicaid. The most likely to be uninsured are the working poor. If some variant of President Clinton's proposal for universal coverage is adopted by Congress, this problem will be eliminated.
Similarly, middle-income and upper-income families can deduct child care expenses from their income taxes, while single mothers on welfare are eligible for government subsidized child care. Poor and near poor two-parent families receive virtually nothing in the way of government-subsidized help with child care because they pay no taxes. As part of its welfare reform proposal, the Clinton administration plans to substantially increase child care subsidies to families with incomes less than 130 percent of the poverty line. If passed, this change would greatly improve the current system and help equalize child care benefits for poor one- and two-parent families.
As a result of Clinton's first budget, we now have a very good program, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), for subsidizing the earnings of low-wage workers with children. As of 1996, a two-parent family with two children and income below $28,000 will receive an additional 40 cents for every dollar earned up to a maximum of about $3,400 per year, which will reduce poverty and economic insecurity in two-parent families. Unfortunately, however, the EITC is an earnings subsidy rather than an employment program. Thus, while it can increase the wages of a poor working parent, it cannot help an unemployed parent find a job.
While the Clinton welfare reform proposal seeks to provide jobs (or workfare) for single mothers on welfare, it offers little support for employment and training for nonresident fathers and none for parents in two-parent families. By making welfare a precondition for obtaining a public job (or job training), even the reformed welfare system would maintain a bias against two- parent families. The only way to get around this problem is to guarantee a minimum wage job to all parents who are willing to work, regardless of whether they live with their children.
Increasing Economic Security for Single-Parent Families. Until recently, we have relied on judicial discretion and parental goodwill to enforce child support obligations. For children the consequences have been devastating. Through the law and other means, we must send an unequivocal message to nonresident fathers (or mothers) that they are expected to share their income with their children, regardless of whether they live with them. This means making sure that all children have a child support award (including children born outside marriage); that awards are adequate and indexed to changes in the nonresident parents' income; and that obligations are paid promptly.
The Family Support Act of 1988 was a giant step toward redressing the failures of our child support system. It required states to increase efforts to establish paternity at birth, to develop standards for setting and updating awards, and to create mechanisms for withholding child support obligations from nonresident parents' earnings. Yet many states have been slow to carry out the Family Support Act. According to recent reports, the gap between what fathers could pay and actually do pay is about $34 billion. The Clinton administration has made child support enforcement a centerpiece of welfare reform. Besides streamlining procedures for identifying fathers and automatically withholding payments from wages, it requires states to enforce child support obligations for all single mothers as opposed to welfare mothers only. This is an excellent move because it helps to prevent poverty in the first place.
Enforcing child support will not only increase the income of single mothers but also sends a strong message to men that if they father a child they become responsible for supporting that child for at least 18 years. This should make men more careful about engaging in unprotected sex and fathers more reluctant to divorce. My position is diametrically opposed to that of conservatives like Murray who argue that unwed mothers should get no support from the fathers of their children. Instead of getting tough on mothers, we should demand more of fathers. We have already tried tough love on the mothers: we cut welfare benefits by 26 percent between 1970 and 1990, and it didn't work.
Requiring men to bear as much responsibility as women for an "unwanted" pregnancy is not such a radical idea. In fact, it resembles the system that used to prevail in this country before the 1960s, when young men did share the "cost" of an unintended pregnancy: they were expected to marry. The phrase "shotgun marriage" calls to mind a legendary threat the young woman's family might make.)
A stricter child support system has its risks. Some people argue that nonresident fathers often are abusive and that forcing these men to pay child support may endanger mothers and children. But most men do not fall into this category. A majority of children should not be deprived of child support because a minority of fathers threaten abuse. Rather, strong steps should be taken to protect single mothers and children from abusive fathers.
Other people object to enforcing child support for fear of overburdening poor fathers. While this problem has long been exaggerated -- many fathers can afford to provide much more child support than they now pay -- it is true that some fathers do not pay because they are unemployed or their wages are so low they can barely cover their own expenses. To help them support their children, nonresident parents -- like resident parents -- should be guaranteed a minimum-wage job. Those who find a private sector job (or a public non-guaranteed job) should be eligible for the earned income tax credit, even if they are not living with their child.
Making nonresident fathers eligible for the EITC would require restructuring the program. Under the current rules, the benefits go to the household with the dependent child. Under a reformed system, the benefits would go to individuals, and both parents in a two-parent family would be eligible for a subsidy if their earnings were very low. This approach avoids penalizing poor parents who live together.
The Clinton welfare reform proposal is a first step in the right direction. It acknowledges that government must not only ask more of nonresident fathers but help those who are trying to "play by the rules." Just how much the government will spend on this part of the new program, however, is unclear.
Besides holding nonresident parents responsible for child support, resident parents should be responsible for raising their children and contributing to their economic support. Most single mothers are doing this already. Over 70 percent work at least part of the year, and over 25 percent work full-time, year round. These numbers are virtually identical to those for married mothers. Although most single mothers work outside the home, a substantial minority depend entirely on welfare for their economic support. And a small percentage remain on welfare for as long as 18 or 20 years. The Clinton welfare reform proposal requires mothers on welfare to seek employment after their child is one year old (and sooner in some cases), and it offers them extensive services to find and keep a job.
I agree with the general thrust of these proposals, at least in principle. Most married mothers prefer to work outside the home, and single mothers on welfare are likely to have the same aspirations. Over the long run, employment should increase a moth- er's earning power and self-esteem and make her less dependent on government.
My major concern about the new proposals is that they reduce the amount of time mothers spend with their children. The loss of parental time could mean less parental involvement and supervision. The result will depend on how many hours the mother works, whether children are placed in good day care and afterschool programs, and the net income of the family, after deducting for child care and other work expenses. If children have less time with their mothers and their families have no more income, they are likely to be worse off under the new system. If they have less time with their mothers but good child care and more income, they are likely to be better off.
The government should assure all children a minimum child support benefit, worth up to $2,000 per year for one child, to be paid by either the father or the government (see Irwin Garfinkel, "Bringing Fathers Back In: The Child Support Assurance Strategy," TAP, Spring 1992). The benefit should be conditional on having a court-ordered child support award, so that single mothers have an incentive to obtain an award, and it should be implemented in conjunction with automatic wage withholding so that fathers cannot shirk their responsibility.
As yet, no state has carried out a guaranteed child support benefit. Such an experiment was nearly implemented in Wisconsin in the early 1980s but was aborted by a change in administration. New York State has been carrying out a version of the plan since 1989 with apparent success, but the program is limited to welfare-eligible mothers. The bipartisan National Commission on Children, headed by Senator Jay Rockefeller, recommended that the states experiment with a minimum child support benefit, and the Clinton welfare reform proposal contains a similar provision.
Local governments and community organizations could also be doing more. For example, they could extend the school day or use school facilities to house extracurricular activities that would offset the loss of parental time and supervision. Mentor programs could also be used to connect children to the adult world.
All these recommendations are driven by three underlying principles. The first is that something must be done immediately to reduce the economic insecurity of children in single-parent families. Low income is the single most important factor in accounting for the lower achievement of these children. Raising income, therefore, should be a major priority. The federal government has demonstrated considerable success in reducing the economic insecurity of the elderly. There is no reason why we cannot do the same for the young.
A second principle is shared responsibility. The costs of raising children must be distributed more equally between men and women and between parents and nonparents. At present mothers bear a disproportionate share of the costs of raising children. Fairness demands that fathers and society at large assume more responsibility.
Third, and most important, programs for child care, health care, and income security should be universal -- available to all children and all parents. The problems facing single parents are not very different from the problems facing all parents. They are just more obvious and pressing. Universal programs avoid the dilemma of how to help children in one-parent families without creating economic incentives in favor of one-parent families. Universal programs also reenforce the idea that single motherhood is a risk shared by a majority of the population. Growing up with a single parent is not something that happens to other people and other people's children. It is something that can happen to us and our children's children.
A NOTE ABOUT THE DATA
The estimates in the table on the next page are based on research that Sara McLanahan and her colleagues have been conducting for the past ten years. Unlike many other studies that focus on children of middle-class divorcing families, this research looks at children from a variety of racial and social class backgrounds. The data cover children born to unmarried parents as well as those born to married parents. Overall, McLanahan and her colleagues have examined six nationally representative data sets, containing over 25,000 children. Confidence in the major findings is strengthened because they hold up across a variety of surveys. Sara S. McLanahan and Gary Sandefur present the full evidence in a forthcoming book, Growing Up With A Single Parent (Harvard University Press).